HORTICULTURE COLUMN: Great time for garden planning

Published 3:23 pm Wednesday, March 6, 2024

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February through March is a crucial time for the home gardener. While there may not be significant activity in the landscape quite yet, it is nonetheless a very busy and exciting time.

Andrew Pfeifer

This is an excellent time to start slow to germinate seeds, cool season herbs and vegetables and prune shrubs that bloom on new growth. It is also an opportunity to apply mulch if needed and plant dormant trees, shrubs and perennials.

Seeds to start indoors

Many members of the nightshade family can be slow to germinate, especially peppers and eggplant. These are some of the best seeds to start early, and they can give quite a boost to your growing season. These seeds benefit greatly from supplemental heat when possible, otherwise one will have to wait two weeks or more for sprouting to occur.

Tomatoes may be started now as well, however, they may grow too large to keep indoors if started now. Mid-March will ensure adequate time to germinate while preventing overgrown seedlings.

Leafy greens are typically cool season crops. Many of these can be sown directly in place, such as lettuce, kale, cabbage, spinach and Swiss chard.

Peas of any kind appreciate cooler weather and can tolerate light frost, starting them early will allow time for a quality harvest before the heat of summer eventually kills the plants.

If starting indoors, chip the seed coat with a sharp tool and soak for several hours to hasten germination. Transplant the vines before they climb. Alternatively, soak and sow directly outdoors.

Bulb and root crops that can be direct sown include radishes, kohlrabi and turnips for a spring harvest. Most of these plants do not do their best if transplanted, grow them in their final position whenever possible.

Onions and shallots are best sown indoors to give them additional time, these can be transplanted easily when the weather warms up.

Perennial flowers and herbs are another great option for early seed starting. Most of them will be able to bloom in their first year if given a head start. Some examples include Echinacea, Salvia and hardy Hibiscus. Herbs include lavender, parsley, and fennel.

Avoid starting warm season vegetables, fruits and flowers that grow very quickly indoors.

Cucumbers and squash will become heavily stunted if confined to small containers this early in the year, and may not survive until transplant. Start these seeds no more than a month before last frost, ideally two weeks is sufficient if not directly sowing seeds. Both pole and bush beans will also be negatively impacted if started too soon.

General garden upkeep and pruning

Mulching can be done any time of the year, but doing so before the growing season starts is one of the most proactive measures one can take. Covering the soil will protect it from drying out, and more importantly can do wonders to prevent summer weeds from getting established.

There are many kinds of mulch, your choice may depend on particular aesthetic needs or functionality. In general, wood chips and hardwood mulch are the highest functioning at both supplying organic matter as it breaks down and retaining moisture during dry weather.

Avoid volcano mulching, in which the material is allowed to come in close contact with the trunk of the plant. This can encourage fungal diseases. If a tree has exposed roots, avoid burying them. Mulch between the roots, they are on the surface likely due to limited oxygen in the soil.

Pruning is an activity done mainly for human interest rather than out of actual necessity when it comes to most trees and shrubs. One should remove diseased and damaged twigs and branches. Dead material should also be removed, along with branches that cross inside of the plant.

However, it is important to prune at the correct time of year depending on what the tree or shrub is intended to do. Spring blooming woody plants, such as azaleas, blueberries and Hydrangeas bloom on growth from the previous summer.

If pruned before blooming, the amount of blooms will be reduced or lost entirely. Pruning after flowering will allow the shrub to grow new branches that can support the flowers for next spring.

Summer blooming shrubs typically flower on new growth, making the end of winter an ideal time to do so. Beautyberry, roses, butterfly bush and rose of Sharon are some examples. Avoid removing more than a third of the total size of the plant if possible. However, very old specimens can be cut back to knee height and will regrow vigorously.

Finally, it is a great time of year to plant dormant trees, shrubs and perennials. Plants will have the opportunity to break dormancy on time and will start growing roots before the summer heat arrives. It is also less stressful on the plant when it is dormant.

Andrew Pfeifer is the horticulture agent for the Stanly County Center of the N.C. Cooperative Extension.